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Hundreds of Schoolgirls in Iran May Have Been Poisoned

Photo: MONA HOOBEHFEKR/ISNA/AFP via Getty Images

Over the weekend, parents in cities across Iran protested a wave of suspected poisoning attacks that have made hundreds of schoolgirls sick in the past three months. Since November, more than 800 girls from 58 schools across ten provinces around Iran have been hospitalized with respiratory, cardiac, and neurological symptoms.

According to the New York Times, many people — including some senior government officials — believe the suspected poisonings are a response to months of protests against the country’s regime in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death. Last week, Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi ordered authorities to investigate the poisonings. The nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that if the suspected poisonings are proved to be deliberate, those responsible for them should be sentenced to death for committing an “unforgivable crime.” On Tuesday, Iranian authorities said they made the first arrests connected to the mysterious poisonings, per CBS, though they provided very little information.

Here’s what we know.

When did girls start getting sick?

In November, 18 girls at a school in the city of Qom were hospitalized after they suddenly had trouble breathing and began experiencing heart palpitations, nausea, and numbness in their limbs. Per CNN, they also reported smelling mysterious scents including tangerines and chlorides. Since then, more than 1,000 girls in ten provinces have reported experiencing similar symptoms. The Washington Post reports that some boys have become ill, but the vast majority of those with the symptoms are girls.

What have Iranian officials said about the situation?

Many people in Iran believe the poisonings are a form of retaliation against women and girls who protested in the wake of Amini’s death in the custody of the country’s “morality police” after she was arrested for wearing her hijab “improperly.” Her death sparked months of protests, leading hard-line Islamist groups to call for girls’ schools to be shuttered because they said girls’ education was a threat.

Iranian officials have had conflicting responses to the suspected poison attacks. The Times reports that Alireza Monadi, head of Parliament’s education committee, recently said that the schools had been deliberately attacked and that 30 toxicologists in the Health Ministry believed the toxins were nitrogen gas. It is not yet known who might be behind the attacks, but people have said the current regime’s hard-line response to last year’s protests empowered the culprits. Iranian deputy health minister Yunes Panahi suggested that the goal of the poisonings was to close girls’ schools, per the BBC.

However, interior minister Ahmad Vahidi, who had been asked by Raisi to investigate, claimed that the girls became sick because of stress and anxiety spurred by the news, not by “external factors” like poison, per German newspaper DW.

On Tuesday, authorities said they arrested “a number of people” in “five provinces” and that “the relevant agencies are conducting a full investigation.” They did not elaborate on a motive or share any information about those who were arrested.

Is it clear what kind of poison may have been used?

The affected girls have reportedly said they experienced headaches and heart palpitations and were unable to move. Some said they smelled tangerines, chlorine, and cleaning agents.

Dan Kaszeta, a chemical-weapons expert and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told the BBC that the odors the girls described are “difficult to tie to particular chemical hazards.” Interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said in a statement Saturday that suspicious samples had been found and were being investigated. “The results will be published as soon as possible,” he said.

According to the Times, toxicologists in the Health Ministry identified the toxins found in schools as nitrogen gas, but other experts say it’s too soon to know.

A number of experts told CNN that the suspected poisonings were “remarkably similar” to incidents that have taken place at schools in Afghanistan since 2009. “In a few of these incidents, pesticides were strongly suspected, but most of the illnesses remain unexplained,” Kaszeta told CNN.

This post has been updated.

Hundreds of Schoolgirls in Iran May Have Been Poisoned